Open to the Expression of Emotion
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | October 2018 (edited October 7, 2021)
Emotions can be powerful—so powerful many fear and avoid them. Emotional openness is having a healthy relationship with experiences of emotion.
Being in touch with emotional experiences is essential to personal growth and healthy relationships. If we fear or reject emotions, numbing our feeling experience, the protective layers blunt our ability to connect. Learning emotional openness is both a skill and a necessity to flourish.
Feelings desperately avoided become fearsome monsters. They frighten us. Discomfort confuses and disrupts when emotions are repeatedly avoided. As a child, we felt emotion, crying when discomforted; but when messages from the adult world, discouraged expressions of emotion, providing little or no guidance for processing discomfort, we dull experience and avoid feeling. We copy the examples, running from feelings, burying experience, and living buried in cold non-feeling layers of logic.
David Richo Ph.D. shares in his wonderful book Five Things We Cannot Change how his childhood experience impacted his relationship with emotion.
"I see a connection to my childhood, with anger being expressed in abusive, violent ways and so I become frightened by rage. My powerlessness in childhood now makes me afraid of healthy anger" (2006).
Our childhoods may be a blessing or a curse to our lifelong relationship with emotions. We learn from our parents skills of regulation, attunement, and openness; or numbing, avoidance and denial.
Emotional Openness is our ability to experience and share our emotional life. Emotional openness is essential for intimacy but also has some inherent risks of vulnerability.
Vulnerability and Emotional Openness
We can't run around emotionally open to the world. Unfortunately, many dishonor our openness, attacking our vulnerabilities, and manipulating our sensitivities. Those worthy of our openness attune to our feelings, reflect our experience, and embrace the connection. Others reject and ridicule, using intimate knowledge to hurt and manipulate.
Charles Ford, a psychiatrist in Birmingham, Alabama and author of several books on human deceit explains that "the young child is unaware of how his or her demeanor and emotions are signaled to other persons." Our emotional disclosures "can be used by others for manipulative purposes." The person who does not learn this difficult lesson, and repeatedly exposes these vulnerabilities "is often prey to the unscrupulous." He continues, "thus, as a social skill, and necessary defense mechanism, the child is progressively taught and learns to present a face to the world that is not necessarily accurate of the internal self" (2004, p. 16).
There are times for emotional openness and times for protections. When we effectively learn a balance of expression and protection, we flourish in both dangerous and safe environments.
People don't have descriptive tags for our examination. We don't know who is safe and who is dangerous. Offering a window to our souls is a slow process of building trust. We must tentatively offer a few bits and pieces, cautiously watching if these guarded secrets are cherished or abused.
"Feelings we desperately hide become fearsome monsters."
As an adult, many of us live in the bleak greyness of words. The emotional explosions of others ignite uncomfortable swirls that we rather not feel. We point and laugh, denigrating the empath as broken, not whole like the unfeeling monsters that we are.
Logic is nice. It offers helpful insights to assist our courageous voyages into the unknown. However, logic is only a single element of wisdom; left alone it fails. We also need emotions to guide.
See Emotional Guidance System for more on this topic
Emotions and Relationships
Can we change this closed-hearted world? Are we destined to an existence where an emoji is the depth of our emotional connection? We need much more for connection.
Ada Lambert wrote in her difficult to find book Evolution of Love that "marriages in which the major emphasis is on the cortex would be dry, like accounting, in which loss and gain are the central issue. All warmth, emotion, and tenderness would be missing" (1997, page 60).
Ada later explains that "our brain is a close-knit fabric of interlacing qualities that foster each other and turn each other on. Evolution, which takes its job seriously, builds a complex network of neural highways, which connect rationality to emotionality, desires to deliberation, eroticism to wisdom, so that optimal functioning is achieved in a human couple's married life over many years" (page 104).
While these neural connections are crucial, they develop in varying degrees of strength, depending on our environments. Mindful attention to emotion aides the connection process. Giving attention to our feeling experience and the empathetically attuning to our partners.
Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, explains that "by developing the ability to focus our attention on our internal world, we are picking up a 'scalpel' we can use to re-sculpt our neural pathways, stimulating the growth of areas of the brain that are crucial to mental health" (2010, location 143).
Emotional openness begins with a conscious, compassionate relationship with our own emotional world, then we expand to the emotional world of others, and allowing a carefully selected safe group of others to intimately participate in our feeling experience of living.
We need more emotionally intimate connections, escaping the "me first" psychology and joining in a togetherness and belonging movement. Others are extremely important. Our mental health relies on healthy connections, not logical dismissals. We must bathe in the swirling world of emotions, seeking connections where emotional expression is acceptable. We can enhance our journey by expanding our emotional vocabularies, understanding the nuances of feeling, and social niceties of expression.
See Emotional Intimacy for more on this topic
The journey of sharing and giving in emotional openness connects our emotional world to the internal world of others, supporting each others in our struggles and joys. We can engage in these intimacies without a frightening threat to our delicate ego. Emotions are important. We can, even as adults, explore the world of emotions. We can feel and enjoy the emotional ups and downs of living—connecting, sharing and exploring through emotional openness.
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Lambert, A. (1997). The Evolution of Love. Praeger; First Edition
Ford, C.V. (2004). Lying and Self-Deception in Health and Disease. In Editor I. Nykliek, Editor, L. Temoshok, & A. Vingerhoets (Eds.) Emotional Expression and Health: Advances in Theory, Assessment and Clinical Applications. Routledge; 1st edition
Richo, D. (2006). Five Things We Cannot Change; And The Happiness We Find By Embracing Them. Shambhala; Reprint edition
Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. Bantam; Reprint edition.